Thursday, August 31, 2017

How to make time slow down.

Many days I feel by 5 p.m. like my day has evaporated without my noticing it. I recall that when I was 20-40 years old my days seems to stretch out much longer. Cooper does a piece on the interesting science of time perception that explains how this has a lot to do with my being in my 76th year. Put most simply, when we are younger we are attending to more new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all, and the longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels. When we are older we typically are taking in information we've processed before ("I've see it all."), the brain doesn't work so hard, so it processes time faster.
Our ‘sense’ of time is unlike our other senses—i.e. taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. With time, we don’t so much sense it as perceive it...our brains take a whole bunch of information from our senses and organize it in a way that makes sense to us, before we ever perceive it. So what we think is our sense of time is actually just a whole bunch of information presented to us in a particular way, as determined by our brains.
When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated...it isn’t just a single area of the brain that controls our time perception—it’s done by a whole bunch of brain areas, unlike our common five senses, which can each be pinpointed to specific area.
So, here's the self-helpy message: How do we make our days last longer? We can feed our brains more new information - keep learning, visit new places, meet new people, try new activities, be spontaneous. The extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly! 

[[By the way, sharp readers will have noted a conflict of the above with yesterday's blog post, namely in the statement above with "Our ‘sense’ of time is unlike our other senses—i.e. taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. With time, we don’t so much sense it as perceive it..." While the basic message above is still OK, yesterday's post points out that we don't directly 'sense it', i.e.  directly taste, touch, smell, see, and hear... the function of that sensory input is to test and tweak our top-down ongoing model of tasting, touching, smelling, seeing. That model, like our perception of time, is a derivative perception, which can also be altered in various ways.]]

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

An essay on the real problem of consciousness.

For those of you who are consciousness mavens, I would recommend having a glance at Anil Seth’s essay, which does a clear headed description of some current ideas about what consciousness is. He summarizes the model of consciousness as an ensemble of predictive perceptions. Clips from his essay:
The classical view of perception is that the brain processes sensory information in a bottom-up or ‘outside-in’ direction: sensory signals enter through receptors (for example, the retina) and then progress deeper into the brain, with each stage recruiting increasingly sophisticated and abstract processing. In this view, the perceptual ‘heavy-lifting’ is done by these bottom-up connections. The Helmholtzian view inverts this framework, proposing that signals flowing into the brain from the outside world convey only prediction errors – the differences between what the brain expects and what it receives. Perceptual content is carried by perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite (top-down) direction, from deep inside the brain out towards the sensory surfaces. Perception involves the minimisation of prediction error simultaneously across many levels of processing within the brain’s sensory systems, by continuously updating the brain’s predictions. In this view, which is often called ‘predictive coding’ or ‘predictive processing’, perception is a controlled hallucination, in which the brain’s hypotheses are continually reined in by sensory signals arriving from the world and the body. ‘A fantasy that coincides with reality,’ as the psychologist Chris Frith eloquently put it in Making Up the Mind (2007).
...instead of asking which brain regions correlate with conscious (versus unconscious) perception, we can ask: which aspects of predictive perception go along with consciousness? A number of experiments are now indicating that consciousness depends more on perceptual predictions, than on prediction errors. In 2001, Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Vincent Walsh at Harvard Medical School asked people to report the perceived direction of movement of clouds of drifting dots (so-called ‘random dot kinematograms’). They used TMS to specifically interrupt top-down signalling across the visual cortex, and they found that this abolished conscious perception of the motion, even though bottom-up signals were left intact.
More recently, in my lab, we’ve been probing the predictive mechanisms of conscious perception in more detail. In several experiments...we’ve found that people consciously see what they expect, rather than what violates their expectations. We’ve also discovered that the brain imposes its perceptual predictions at preferred points (or phases) within the so-called ‘alpha rhythm’, which is an oscillation in the EEG signal at about 10 Hz that is especially prominent over the visual areas of the brain. This is exciting because it gives us a glimpse of how the brain might actually implement something like predictive perception, and because it sheds new light on a well-known phenomenon of brain activity, the alpha rhythm, whose function so far has remained elusive.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A magic bullet to restore our brain's plasticity?

No...not yet. But work by Jenks et al. showing that juvenile-like plasticity is restored in the visual cortex of adult mice by acute viral expression of the neuronal protein Arc makes one wonder if a similar trick might eventually be tried in adult human brains...

Significance
Neuronal plasticity peaks early in life during critical periods and normally declines with age, but the molecular changes that underlie this decline are not fully understood. Using the mouse visual cortex as a model, we found that activity-dependent expression of the neuronal protein Arc peaks early in life, and that loss of activity-dependent Arc expression parallels loss of synaptic plasticity in the visual cortex. Genetic overexpression of Arc prolongs the critical period of visual cortex plasticity, and acute viral expression of Arc in adult mice can restore juvenile-like plasticity. These findings provide a mechanism for the loss of excitatory plasticity with age, and suggest that Arc may be an exciting therapeutic target for modulation of the malleability of neuronal circuits.
Abstract
The molecular basis for the decline in experience-dependent neural plasticity over age remains poorly understood. In visual cortex, the robust plasticity induced in juvenile mice by brief monocular deprivation during the critical period is abrogated by genetic deletion of Arc, an activity-dependent regulator of excitatory synaptic modification. Here, we report that augmenting Arc expression in adult mice prolongs juvenile-like plasticity in visual cortex, as assessed by recordings of ocular dominance (OD) plasticity in vivo. A distinguishing characteristic of juvenile OD plasticity is the weakening of deprived-eye responses, believed to be accounted for by the mechanisms of homosynaptic long-term depression (LTD). Accordingly, we also found increased LTD in visual cortex of adult mice with augmented Arc expression and impaired LTD in visual cortex of juvenile mice that lack Arc or have been treated in vivo with a protein synthesis inhibitor. Further, we found that although activity-dependent expression of Arc mRNA does not change with age, expression of Arc protein is maximal during the critical period and declines in adulthood. Finally, we show that acute augmentation of Arc expression in wild-type adult mouse visual cortex is sufficient to restore juvenile-like plasticity. Together, our findings suggest a unifying molecular explanation for the age- and activity-dependent modulation of synaptic sensitivity to deprivation.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Are people really unconcerned about rising economic inequality?

McCall et al. provide data to counter a common social sciences research conclusion that Americans don't are about rising inequality:
Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s and by some measures stands at levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Although the strikingly high and rising level of economic inequality in the nation has alarmed scholars, pundits, and elected officials alike, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. Considerable research has documented, for instance, the important role of psychological processes, such as system justification and American Dream ideology, in engendering Americans’ relative insensitivity to economic inequality. The present work offers, and reports experimental tests of, a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, two convenience samples (study 1, n = 480; and study 2, n = 1,305) and one representative sample (study 3, n = 1,501) of American adults were exposed to information about rising economic inequality in the United States (or control information) and then asked about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs). They then responded to policy questions regarding the roles of business and government actors in reducing economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mammalian empathy: neural basis and behavioral manifestations

I want to point to an interesting review by de Waal and Preston in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Here are the Abstract and a few excerpts from the article:
Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception–action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer's past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another's state.
Key points:
Observational and experimental studies dating back to the 1950s demonstrate that mammals spontaneously help distressed conspecifics. Research emphasizes the untrained, unrewarded nature of this behaviour, which is also biased towards familiar individuals, thus arguing against explanations that are exclusively based on associative learning or conditioning.
The perception–action model extends an existing motor theory on overlapping representations to emotional phenomena; it states that observers who attend to a target's state understand and 'feel into' it through personal distributed representations of the target, the state and the situation. Easily observed manifestations of this mechanism are emotional contagion and motor mimicry, which have been demonstrated in many animals. In cognitive forms of empathy, the same representations are accessed from the top-down.
Experiments on two common mammalian expressions of empathy — the consolation of distressed individuals and spontaneous assistance to those in need — support the crucial role of caught distress and arousal because these behaviours are suppressed by anti-anxiety medication and engage the same neuropeptide system that supports social attachment.
The Russian-doll model seeks to arrange forms of empathy into layers that are built on top of each other — with the layers ranging from emotional contagion to more cognitive forms of empathy — in a functionally integrated whole based on perception–action processes. Perspective-taking is well developed in some non-human species, as manifested by theory-of-mind and targeted helping.
One can segregate emotional and cognitive empathy (as well as felt and observed states) in the brains of observers, but all forms require some initial access to the observer's distributed, shared, personal representations of the target's state. At least in the initial phase of processing, this access helps to decode the target's state and provide subsequent processing with content and meaning, even if the shared state is not experienced, or is incomplete or inaccurate.
Empathic pain does not usually include the peripheral sensation of the target's injury, but it can include sensory information when the stimuli and task instructions emphasize the specific nature of the feeling at the location of the injury.
The Russian Doll Model of the Evolution of Empathy




Thursday, August 24, 2017

Forget about our brains, even the most simple nerve networks defy understanding.

If the artificial intelligence researchers who want to ‘reverse engineer the brain’ as a model for artificial general intelligence want yet another sobering read, they should have a look at Kerri Smith’s recent Nature review of work in many labs on different simple animal models that are vastly less complicated than the human brain (nematodes, fruit fly larvae, zebrafish embryos, etc.). They are bloody complicated:
...neural-network diagrams are yielding surprises — showing, for example, that a brain can use one network in multiple ways to create the same behaviours...Circuits vary in layout and function from animal to animal. The systems have redundancy that makes it difficult to pin one function to one circuit. Plus, wiring alone doesn't fully explain how circuits generate behaviours; other factors, such as neurochemicals, have to be considered.
...Eve Marder of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has been working on a simple circuit of 30 neurons in the crab gastric system...although the circuits of individual animals may look the same and produce the same output, they vary widely in the strength of their signals and the conductance at their synapses

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Different flavors of artificial intelligence - and, can we pull the plug?

I want to pass on a few summary points from two recent sessions of the Chaos and Complex Systems seminar that I attend at the University of Wisconsin. I led the first of the sessions and Terry Allard, a retired government science administrator (ONR, NASA, FAA) led the second.

Artificial intelligence (AI) comes in at least three flavors, or stages of development.

There is Artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), which where we are now, crunching massive amounts of data to discern patterns that let us solve problems, like reading X-rays or deciding whether to approve mortgage loans.

Then there’s artificial general intelligence (AGI, not yet happening), meant to achieve the kind of flexible and novel thinking that even human infants can do. Ideas about how to proceed include reverse engineering how the brain does what it does, making evolution happen with genetic algorithms, devising programs that change themselves as they learn (recursive self improvement), etc.

These approaches, especially recursive self improvement, might eventually lead on to artificial super intelligence (ASI), transcending human abilities. We might be no more able to understand this new kind of entity than a dog is able to understand quantum physics.  (See The Road to Superintelligence for one line of speculation.)

Intelligence. or how intelligent something is, is a measure of ability to achieve a particular aim, to deploy novel means to attain a goal, whatever it happens to be, the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself. Being smart is not the same as wanting something. Any level of intelligence — including superintelligence — can be combined with just about any set of final goals — including goals that strike us as stupid.

So...what is the fundamental overall goal or aim of humans? Presumably, as with all other biological life forms, to perpetuate the species, which requires not having the environmental niche from which it draws support disappear, either through its own actions or though other natural forces. A super AI that might supplant us or be the next stage in our evolution would have to maintain or reproduce itself in a natural physical environment in the same way .

Paranoid fantasies about AI dystopias abound, and Applebaum suggests the AI dystopia may already be here, in the form of ubiquitous bots:
...bits of code that can crawl around the web doing all sorts of things more sinister than correcting spelling and grammar, like completely infecting and distorting social media, the article cites one estimate that half of the users on Twitter are bots, created by companies that either sell them or use them to promote various causes. The Computational Propaganda Research Project at the University of Oxford has described how bots are used to promote either political parties or government agendas in 28 countries. They can harass political opponents or their followers, promote policies, or simply seek to get ideas into circulation….no one is really able to explain the way they all interact, or what the impact of both real and artificial online campaigns might be on the way people think or form opinions.
Maybe we’ve been imagining this scenario incorrectly all of this time. Maybe this is what “computers out of control” really look like. There’s no giant spaceship, nor are there armies of lifelike robots. Instead, we have created a swamp of unreality, a world where you don’t know whether the emotions you are feeling are manipulated by men or machines, and where — once all news moves online, as it surely will — it will soon be impossible to know what’s real and what’s imagined. Isn’t this the dystopia we have so long feared?
Distinctions between human and autonomous agents are blurred in virtual worlds. What is real and what is “fake news”  is difficult to ascertain. “Spoofing” is rampant. (See The curious case of ‘Nicole Mincey,’ the Trump fan who may actually be a bot.).

Terry Allard offered the following Assertions/Assumptions in the second of our sessions:

-Artificial Intelligence is not a continuum. Human-Level Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is not a required step to super-intelligence.  -Machine evolution requires machine capability to self-code and to build physical artifacts.
-People will become dependent on machine intelligence but largely unaware and unconcerned.
-AI’s will be pervasive, distributed, multi-layered and networked, not single independent entities.
-Super-intelligent Machines may have multiple levels of agency. There will be no single “off switch” allowing humans to pull the plug.
-What can be invented, will be invented; it’s just a question of time.

Finally, I point to an article by Cade Metz, "Teaching AI systems to behave themselves," that is an antidote to paranoid fantasies and questions about whether there can be an 'off switch'.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Race based biases in deception judgements.

From Lloyd et al.:
In six studies (N = 605), participants made deception judgments about videos of Black and White targets who told truths and lies about interpersonal relationships. White participants judged that Black targets were telling the truth more often than they judged that White targets were telling the truth. This truth bias was predicted by Whites’ motivation to respond without prejudice. For Black participants, however, motives to respond without prejudice did not moderate responses. We found similar effects with a manipulation of the targets’ apparent race. Finally, we used eye-tracking techniques to demonstrate that Whites’ truth bias for Black targets is likely the result of late-stage correction processes: Despite ultimately judging that Black targets were telling the truth more often than White targets, Whites were faster to fixate on the on-screen “lie” response box when targets were Black than when targets were White. These systematic race-based biases have important theoretical implications (e.g., for lie detection and improving intergroup communication and relations) and practical implications (e.g., for reducing racial bias in law enforcement).

Monday, August 21, 2017

Beyond anger.

A feature of our current political polarization is the pent up anger felt by both far-left and far-right political partisans against each other, sometimes including dehumanization and demonization of the opposite side. Aeon offers a brief essay by Martha Nussbaum that is worth reading. A few clips and a comment:
A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback.
Nussbaum takes payback, or revenge, as a flawed way of making sense of the world. Except..
There is one, and I think only one, situation in which the payback idea does make sense. That is when I see the wrong as entirely and only what Aristotle calls a ‘down-ranking’: a personal humiliation, seen as entirely about relative status. If the problem is not the injustice itself, but the way it has affected my ranking in the social hierarchy, then I really can achieve something by humiliating the wrongdoer: by putting him relatively lower, I put myself relatively higher, and if status is all I care about, I don’t need to worry that the real wellbeing problems created by the wrongful act have not been solved.
I don't think Nussbaum gives sufficient emphasis to payback, or punishment, as a means to upholding and enforcing social norms. The main part of her essay describes Nelson Mandela's extraordinary actions in overcoming anger to bring together two parts of a deeply divided nation.
Whether the anger in question is personal, or work-related, or political, it requires exacting effort against one’s own habits and prevalent cultural forces. Many great leaders have understood this struggle, but none more deeply than Nelson Mandela...he knew that there could be no successful nation when two groups were held apart by suspicion, resentment, and the desire to make the other side pay for the wrongs they had done. Even though those wrongs were terrible, cooperation was necessary for nationhood.
Nussbaum gives examples of Mandela bringing people together:
When the ANC (African National Congress) voted to replace the old Afrikaner national anthem with the anthem of the freedom movement, he persuaded them to adopt, instead, the anthem that is now official, which includes the freedom anthem (using three African languages), a verse of the Afrikaner hymn, and a concluding section in English. When the ANC wanted to decertify the rugby team as a national team, correctly understanding the sport’s long connection to racism, Mandela, famously, went in the other direction, backing the rugby team to a World Cup victory and, through friendship, getting the white players to teach the sport to young black children.
We need our own Nelson Mandela to begin to heal the current alt-right/alt-left standoff!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hold your nose to prevent obesity?

Smell clearly affects the anticipation and appreciation of food. Riera et al. show (in mice) that activity in olfactory sensory neurons also influences energy regulation. Mice who lose their sense of smell become leaner, not because they eat less, but because increased sympathetic nerve activity causes increased fat-burning activity.

Highlights
•Loss of adult olfactory neurons protects against diet-induced obesity 
•Loss of smell after obesity also reduces fat mass and insulin resistance 
•Loss of IGF1 receptors in olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) improves olfaction 
•Loss of IGF1R in OSNs increases adiposity and insulin resistance
Summary
Olfactory inputs help coordinate food appreciation and selection, but their role in systemic physiology and energy balance is poorly understood. Here we demonstrate that mice upon conditional ablation of mature olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) are resistant to diet-induced obesity accompanied by increased thermogenesis in brown and inguinal fat depots. Acute loss of smell perception after obesity onset not only abrogated further weight gain but also improved fat mass and insulin resistance. Reduced olfactory input stimulates sympathetic nerve activity, resulting in activation of β-adrenergic receptors on white and brown adipocytes to promote lipolysis. Conversely, conditional ablation of the IGF1 receptor in OSNs enhances olfactory performance in mice and leads to increased adiposity and insulin resistance. These findings unravel a new bidirectional function for the olfactory system in controlling energy homeostasis in response to sensory and hormonal signals.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Our broken economy, in one simple chart

You probably have seen this chart from a NYTimes article by now, but I want to pass it on just in case. Also getting it into the list of MindBlog posts makes it easier for me to search for and recall it. The graph shows income growth over the past 34 years versus income percentile for those living in 1980 and in 2014.




Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Neural correlates of the positive effects of gratitude.

Fox offers a review noting studies showing that gratitude activates area of the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief - an area of the brain that also is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief. He points in particular to the work of Kini et al.. Their abstract:
Gratitude is a common aspect of social interaction, yet relatively little is known about the neural bases of gratitude expression, nor how gratitude expression may lead to longer-term effects on brain activity. To address these twin issues, we recruited subjects who coincidentally were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety. One group participated in a gratitude writing intervention, which required them to write letters expressing gratitude. The therapy-as-usual control group did not perform a writing intervention. After three months, subjects performed a “Pay It Forward” task in the fMRI scanner. In the task, subjects were repeatedly endowed with a monetary gift and then asked to pass it on to a charitable cause to the extent they felt grateful for the gift. Operationalizing gratitude as monetary gifts allowed us to engage the subjects and quantify the gratitude expression for subsequent analyses. We measured brain activity and found regions where activity correlated with self-reported gratitude experience during the task, even including related constructs such as guilt motivation and desire to help as statistical controls. These were mostly distinct from brain regions activated by empathy or theory of mind. Also, our between groups cross-sectional study found that a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude – subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.
Fox also points to an article suggesting a role for mu-Opioids in mediating the positive effects of gratitude.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Exposure to and recall of violence reduce short-term memory and cognitive control

From Bogliacino et al.:

Significance
Research on violence has mainly focused on its consequences on individuals’ health and behavior. This study establishes the effects of exposure to violence on individuals’ short-term memory and cognitive control. These are key factors affecting individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare. We found that higher exposure to violence significantly reduces short-term memory and cognitive control only in the group actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. This finding demonstrates and characterizes the long-lasting effects of violence. Existing studies have found effects of poverty on cognitive control similar to those that we found for violence. This set of findings supports the validity of the cognitive theory underpinning these studies.
Abstract
Previous research has investigated the effects of violence and warfare on individuals' well-being, mental health, and individual prosociality and risk aversion. This study establishes the short- and long-term effects of exposure to violence on short-term memory and aspects of cognitive control. Short-term memory is the ability to store information. Cognitive control is the capacity to exert inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Both have been shown to affect positively individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare more than a decade earlier. We assessed exposure to violence through either the urban district-level homicide rate or self-reported measures. Before undertaking cognitive tests, a randomly selected subset of our sample was asked to recall emotions of anxiety and fear connected to experiences of violence, whereas the rest recalled joyful or emotionally neutral experiences. We found that higher exposure to violence was associated with lower short-term memory abilities and lower cognitive control in the group recalling experiences of violence, whereas it had no effect in the other group. This finding demonstrates that exposure to violence, even if a decade earlier, can hamper cognitive functions, but only among individuals actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. A laboratory experiment conducted in Germany aimed to separate the effect of recalling violent events from the effect of emotions of fear and anxiety. Both factors had significant negative effects on cognitive functions and appeared to be independent from each other.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Leisure just as enjoyable before as after work is done.

From O'Brien and Roney:
Four studies reveal that (a) people hold a robust intuition about the order of work and leisure and that (b) this intuition is sometimes mistaken. People prefer saving leisure for last, believing they would otherwise be distracted by looming work (Study 1). In controlled experiments, however, although subjects thought their enjoyment would be spoiled when they played a game before rather than after a laborious problem-solving task, got a massage before rather than after midterms, and consumed snacks and watched videos before rather than after a stressful performance, in reality these experiences were similarly enjoyable regardless of order (Studies 2 through 4). This misprediction was indeed mediated by anticipated distraction and was therefore attenuated after people were reminded of the absorbing nature of enjoyable activities (Studies 3 and 4). These studies highlight the power of hedonic experience within the moment of consumption, which has implications for managing (or mismanaging) everyday work and leisure. People might postpone leisure and overwork for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perception of being overweight predicts future health and well-being

An interesting bit from Daly et al.:
Identifying oneself as being overweight may be associated with adverse health outcomes, yet prospective tests of this possibility are lacking. Over 7 years, we examined associations between perceptions of being overweight and subsequent health in a sample of 3,582 U.S. adults. Perceiving oneself as being overweight predicted longitudinal declines in subjective health (d = −0.22, p less than .001), increases in depressive symptoms (d = 0.09, p less than .05), and raised levels of physiological dysregulation (d = 0.24, p less than .001), as gauged by clinical indicators of cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic functioning. These associations remained after controlling for a range of potential confounders and were observed irrespective of whether perceptions of being overweight were accurate or inaccurate. This research highlights the possibility that identifying oneself as overweight may act independently of body mass index to contribute to unhealthy profiles of physiological functioning and impaired health over time. These findings underscore the importance of evaluating whether weight-feedback interventions may have unforeseen adverse consequences.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In group favoritism shown by 17 month old infants.

Jin and Baillargeon make observations that suggest an early origin of the 'us and them' perspective being taken to extremes in our current political climate.
One pervasive facet of human interactions is the tendency to favor ingroups over outgroups. Remarkably, this tendency has been observed even when individuals are assigned to minimal groups based on arbitrary markers. Why is mere categorization into a minimal group sufficient to elicit some degree of ingroup favoritism? We consider several accounts that have been proposed in answer to this question and then test one particular account, which holds that ingroup favoritism reflects in part an abstract and early-emerging sociomoral expectation of ingroup support. In violation-of-expectation experiments with 17-mo-old infants, unfamiliar women were first identified (using novel labels) as belonging to the same group, to different groups, or to unspecified groups. Next, one woman needed instrumental assistance to achieve her goal, and another woman either provided the necessary assistance (help event) or chose not to do so (ignore event). When the two women belonged to the same group, infants looked significantly longer if shown the ignore as opposed to the help event; when the two women belonged to different groups or to unspecified groups, however, infants looked equally at the two events. Together, these results indicate that infants view helping as expected among individuals from the same group, but as optional otherwise. As such, the results demonstrate that from an early age, an abstract expectation of ingroup support contributes to ingroup favoritism in human interactions.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Redistribution is supported by compassion, envy, and self interest, but not sense of fairness.

A huge collaboration looks at support for redistribution of wealth from an evolutionary psychology perspective:

Significance
Markets have lifted millions out of poverty, but considerable inequality remains and there is a large worldwide demand for redistribution. Although economists, philosophers, and public policy analysts debate the merits and demerits of various redistributive programs, a parallel debate has focused on voters’ motives for supporting redistribution. Understanding these motives is crucial, for the performance of a policy cannot be meaningfully evaluated except in the light of intended ends. Unfortunately, existing approaches pose ill-specified motives. Chief among them is fairness, a notion that feels intuitive but often rests on multiple inconsistent principles. We show that evolved motives for navigating interpersonal interactions clearly predict attitudes about redistribution, but a taste for procedural fairness or distributional fairness does not.
Abstract
Why do people support economic redistribution? Hypotheses include inequity aversion, a moral sense that inequality is intrinsically unfair, and cultural explanations such as exposure to and assimilation of culturally transmitted ideologies. However, humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time, and our motivational systems may have been naturally selected to navigate the opportunities and challenges posed by such recurrent interactions. We hypothesize that modern redistribution is perceived as an ancestral scene involving three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. We explore how three motivational systems—compassion, self-interest, and envy—guide responses to the needy other and the better-off other, and how they pattern responses to redistribution. Data from the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel support this model. Endorsement of redistribution is independently predicted by dispositional compassion, dispositional envy, and the expectation of personal gain from redistribution. By contrast, a taste for fairness, in the sense of (i) universality in the application of laws and standards, or (ii) low variance in group-level payoffs, fails to predict attitudes about redistribution.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Smiles for love, sympathy, and war.

From Rychlowska et al.:
A smile is the most frequent facial expression, but not all smiles are equal. A social-functional account holds that smiles of reward, affiliation, and dominance serve basic social functions, including rewarding behavior, bonding socially, and negotiating hierarchy. Here, we characterize the facial-expression patterns associated with these three types of smiles. Specifically, we modeled the facial expressions using a data-driven approach and showed that reward smiles are symmetrical and accompanied by eyebrow raising, affiliative smiles involve lip pressing, and dominance smiles are asymmetrical and contain nose wrinkling and upper-lip raising. A Bayesian-classifier analysis and a detection task revealed that the three smile types are highly distinct. Finally, social judgments made by a separate participant group showed that the different smile types convey different social messages. Our results provide the first detailed description of the physical form and social messages conveyed by these three types of functional smiles and document the versatility of these facial expressions.  (click on figure to enlarge). 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Why it's a bad idea to tell students that words are violence

A piece by Haidt and Lukianoff contesting several points made by Lisa Friedman in a much discussed NYTimes Grey Matter essay is worth a read. After noting that Friedman makes the valid and well known point that chronic stress can cause physical damage to the body, they contest her logic that follows:
Feldman Barrett used these empirical findings to advance a syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.” It is logically true that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. But following this logic, the resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence. If you’re not convinced, just re-run the syllogism starting with “gossiping about a rival,” for example, or “giving one’s students a lot of homework.” Both practices can cause prolonged stress to others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.
Friedman also notes that brief adversity, like being exposed to a distasteful perspective, can be a 'good kind of stress,' not harmful to the body, but rather building more resilience and strength. She notes further that a political or social climate exposing people to hateful words or casual brutality, can be toxic to the body, and then follows with a second invalid point:
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.
Haidt and Lukianoff:
But wait, wasn’t Feldman Barrett’s key point the contrast between short- and long-term stressors? What would have happened had Yiannopoulos been allowed to speak at Berkeley? He would have faced a gigantic crowd of peaceful protesters, inside and outside the venue. The event would have been over in two hours. Any students who thought his words would cause them trauma could have avoided the talk and left the protesting to others. Anyone who joined the protests would have left with a strong sense of campus solidarity. And most importantly, all Berkeley students would have learned an essential lesson for life in 2017: How to encounter a troll without losing one’s cool. (The goal of a troll, after all, is to make people lose their cool.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

A positive mood from listening to music broadens our auditory attention.

An addition to the literature from Putkinen et al. expanding on previous findings that positive mood broadens visual attention:
Previous studies indicate that positive mood broadens the scope of visual attention, which can manifest as heightened distractibility. We used event-related potentials (ERP) to investigate whether music-induced positive mood has comparable effects on selective attention in the auditory domain. Subjects listened to experimenter-selected happy, neutral or sad instrumental music and afterwards participated in a dichotic listening task. Distractor sounds in the unattended channel elicited responses related to early sound encoding (N1/MMN) and bottom-up attention capture (P3a) while target sounds in the attended channel elicited a response related to top-down-controlled processing of task-relevant stimuli (P3b). For the subjects in a happy mood, the N1/MMN responses to the distractor sounds were enlarged while the P3b elicited by the target sounds was diminished. Behaviorally, these subjects tended to show heightened error rates on target trials following the distractor sounds. Thus, the ERP and behavioral results indicate that the subjects in a happy mood allocated their attentional resources more diffusely across the attended and the to-be-ignored channels. Therefore, the current study extends previous research on the effects of mood on visual attention and indicates that even unfamiliar instrumental music can broaden the scope of auditory attention via its effects on mood.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Default mode network and the wandering mind.

The respective roles of attentional and default mode networks in our brains has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts (enter 'default mode' in the search box in the left column). Here is a further installment from Poerio et al.:
Experiences such as mind-wandering illustrate that cognition is not always tethered to events in the here-and-now. Although converging evidence emphasises the default mode network (DMN) in mind-wandering, its precise contribution remains unclear. The DMN comprises cortical regions that are maximally distant from primary sensory and motor cortex, a topological location that may support the stimulus-independence of mind-wandering. The DMN is functionally heterogeneous, comprising regions engaged by memory, social cognition and planning; processes relevant to mind-wandering content. Our study examined the relationships between: (i) individual differences in resting-state DMN connectivity, (ii) performance on memory, social and planning tasks and (iii) variability in spontaneous thought, to investigate whether the DMN is critical to mind-wandering because it supports stimulus-independent cognition, memory retrieval, or both. Individual variation in task performance modulated the functional organization of the DMN: poor external engagement was linked to stronger coupling between medial and dorsal subsystems, while decoupling of the core from the cerebellum predicted reports of detailed memory retrieval. Both patterns predicted off-task future thoughts. Consistent with predictions from component process accounts of mind-wandering, our study suggests a 2-fold involvement of the DMN: (i) it supports experiences that are unrelated to the environment through strong coupling between its sub-systems; (ii) it allows memory representations to form the basis of conscious experience.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The real threat of artificial intelligence

I want to pass on some clips from a very cogent article by Kai-Fu Lee (chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm, and the president of its Artificial Intelligence Institute). Then you might like to note the article by Gary Marcus suggesting that A.I. has a long way to go before bringing us to the crisis Lee suggests.
What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan)...This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.
Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too...This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it.
We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?
The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.” These are jobs that A.I. cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage and serving as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous — or, potentially soon, Virtual Reality Anonymous (for those addicted to their parallel lives in computer-generated simulations). The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future.
Who will pay for these jobs? Here is where the enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands comes in. It strikes me as unavoidable that large chunks of the money created by A.I. will have to be transferred to those whose jobs have been displaced. This seems feasible only through Keynesian policies of increased government spending, presumably raised through taxation on wealthy companies.
The Keynesian approach I have sketched out may be feasible in the United States and China, which will have enough successful A.I. businesses to fund welfare initiatives via taxes. But what about other countries? ...They face two insurmountable problems. First, most of the money being made from artificial intelligence will go to the United States and China. A.I. is an industry in which strength begets strength...The other challenge for many countries that are not China or the United States is that their populations are increasing, especially in the developing world. While a large, growing population can be an economic asset (as in China and India in recent decades), in the age of A.I. it will be an economic liability because it will comprise mostly displaced workers, not productive ones.
So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.
One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Buying time promotes happiness.

A nice piece from Whillans et al.:

Significance
Despite rising incomes, people around the world are feeling increasingly pressed for time, undermining well-being. We show that the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time. Surveys of large, diverse samples from four countries reveal that spending money on time-saving services is linked to greater life satisfaction. To establish causality, we show that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. This research reveals a previously unexamined route from wealth to well-being: spending money to buy free time.
Abstract
Around the world, increases in wealth have produced an unintended consequence: a rising sense of time scarcity. We provide evidence that using money to buy time can provide a buffer against this time famine, thereby promoting happiness. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (n = 6,271), we show that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.